On Mark Steenrod's dormitory room PC, you'll find stored term papers, class assignments and work for his Web site design internship. Tame stuff, until the 19-year-old calls up a list of more than 300 pieces of music. He hasn't paid a dime for most of the tunes.
Steenrod has collected - and shares with pals - his free music collection via the Internet, thanks in part to Napster, the controversial Web site offering a free MP3 digital music file-sharing program that a federal judge late Wednesday ordered shut down tonight at midnight.
U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, in San Francisco, granted a preliminary injunction against the site, which has achieved something of a cult status on the Net, saying it was no more than a cover for pirating copyrighted music.
But don't expect to find Steenrod - and the throngs of college students and other Web-savvy music fans who routinely use Napster - greatly concerned about the ruling.
The reason: Napster is but part of a digital tidal wave of computer programs that have been unleashed across the Net, allowing music fans to locate, copy and store popular and hard to find tunes.
Yesterday, lawyers for Napster asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to stay the judge's order.
"We'll fight this in a variety of ways, to keep the Napster community going and strong," said Napster Chief Executive Officer Hank Barry.
Patel's ruling may have triggered alarm at Napster over the Recording Industry Association of America's court victory against it. And it certainly triggered a frenetic avalanche of visitors downloading music from the site.
But whether Napster stands or falls in the courts doesn't matter, say online music buffs.
"There are other really good programs for sharing files; I doubt there's much the music industry can do about them," said Steenrod, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County sophomore.
As online music experts note, these other new music file-sharing programs, such as Gnutella and Freenet, are readily available for music swapping.
Even more, they don't require users to go to a central Web site music repository such as Napster to locate and copy music. And since they aren't set up as Web sites or businesses, as Napster is, they maybe difficult to stop in the courts, legal experts say.
Known as user-to-user or peer-to-peer programs, the software is designed to search out and grab content directly from the hard drives of others interested in sharing. Steenrod said he's used such programs to locate out-of-print or hard-to-find music.
Also, such programs don't limit users to sharing just music files, but any digital content, from recipes for strawberry pie to illicit videos of the latest celebrities caught in the buff.
Steenrod said he routinely uses a new software program, Scour Exchange, that allows for searching and sharing of images as part of his Web site design internship work.
In fact, by midday yesterday, more than 31,000 people had used Scour Exchange to share more than 2 million songs.
Said Gene Kan, 23, a San Mateo, Calif., software programmer credited with co-developing and spreading a popular version of the Gnutella program: "The Internet and file-sharing programs open all kinds of doors for musicians and other artists. For the most part, they don't understand the technology, but they will once they realize they can make hundreds of thousands of dollars using it. They won't have to put up with the greed of the recording companies."
But Hilary Rosen, president of the RIAA, said: "The principles of copyright are alive and well in cyberspace and must co-exist with innovation." And Scott Edwards, an anti-piracy lawyer for the Software and Information Industry Association, cautioned that free file-sharing programs such as Napster and Gnutella may have hidden dangers for users. "Let's face it, when you are getting a file from someone you don't know, you really don't know exactly what you're getting," he said. "A virus or something else could be embedded on the file. It's a roll of the dice."
One thing on which a lot of Internet experts agree is that Napster, whether it lives or dies, is destined to have a dramatic effect on how music is marketed, distributed and listened to.
Ric Dube, an analyst with Webnoize, an Internet research company in Los Angeles, said file-sharing programs such as Napster give consumers far more control over how they collect music. "What Napster says about the music industry is that it is evolving away from music marketers toward music experiences," Dube said.
"Young music listeners are not attached to the idea of buying an entire CD from one artist. They may only like and want to listen to one song - the experience. The thinking is, 'Why should I have to buy a bunch of other songs I'm never going to play.' Napster gives you the freedom to create a list of music you want to play, rather than rely on someone else's packaging."
Which is what University of Maryland MBA student Robert Smith has doing since March, when he became a devoted user of Napster. Since then, he's used the site to locate more than 200 songs from a list he'd been compiling of favorite tunes since the 1980s. "Its like hunting or fishing. There's this element of total surprise and fulfillment when you find a piece of music you've been after," Smith said.
'I listen to what I want'
Thanks to the bank of digital music he's compiled on his PC, Smith rarely listens to the radio anymore. "What I've created is station 'WROB.' I listen to what I want, when I want."
He said he'll download one of the other file sharing programs if the RIAA is successful in squashing Napster, named for the "Nappie" nickname of its 19-year-old creator, Sean Fanning.
Meanwhile, many experts are perplexed as to why the recording industry has fought Napster, rather than embracing the technology and finding a way to parlay its convenience and functionality into a way to make money.
"If the ruling against Napster holds, the record labels lose a vital, potential partner and chase online music fans deeper into the less centralized, less traceable, software category," said Aram Sinnreich, an analyst at Jupiter Communications, an Internet research firm. In short, he said, the record industry "has shot itself in the foot."
Other experts, such as online music seller Listen.com's vice president for marketing Sean Ryan, predict that the legal wrangling over Napster will become moot as new technologies, such as digital watermarking, and the record labels catch up with the MP3 digital music format, ensuring that whoever listens pays.
"Piracy is a normal part of the evolution of every new business," said Ryan, pointing to the enormous piracy still occurring in the video movie industry. "Eventually, the industry matures and piracy becomes just a cost of doing business. The online music business is growing and here to stay."